Skip main navigation

Early Modern English pronouns

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explain grammar – here specifically pronouns – and how Shakespeare was able to exploit it.

Pronouns are little words but have big consequences! One of the reasons for that is that pronouns refer to people involved in the speech or writing, including in the fictional worlds of literary texts.

The second person pronoun “you”, and its related forms, is particularly important in connecting speakers with others, but was additionally important in Shakespeare’s time because there was an additional set of second person pronouns revolving around “thou”.

The choice between these two sets had implications for meaning. Huge quantities of research have attempted to understand those meanings inside Shakespeare and outside. Generally speaking, “you” forms were relatively normal – more frequent and less marked, less salient. “Thou” forms do seem to conform to a number of minor patterns, including their use in condescending to someone, but it is very difficult to generalise. What is particularly important is when the character suddenly shifts from one form to another, as indeed King Lear does with his daughters at the beginning of the play.

Have you noted “thou” forms in Shakespeare before? What did you assume that they meant? Have you ever come across these forms in today’s language (they are actually still used)? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

This article is from the free online

Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now